The Haunted Mansion review by Mike Long

If you think it's sad that Disney's film The Haunted Mansion is based on a theme-park ride, listen to this story. When I was a child, I didn't get to go to Disney World. (I was told that I was a "bad traveller".) I did have a book-and-record (remember those?) of "The Haunted Mansion", which told the story of the ride in narrative form, and basically makes one feels as if they were going through the attraction. Here's the really sad part: my vicarious-thrill book-and-record was much better than the big-budget Disney movie.

In The Haunted Mansion, Eddie Murphy stars as Jim Evers, who along with his wife Sara (Marsha Thomason), owns a real estate company. Jim is a true go-getter, and Sara feels that he shirks his family, including their two children, Megan (Aree Davis) and Michael (Marc John Jeffries). Sara receives an odd phone call to visit a distant house, and Jim promises that the family will take a vacation as soon as they check out the property. When the family arrives at the house, they find it to be a huge, old mansion. Once inside, they meet Ramsley (Terence Stamp), creepy butler, and Master Gracey (Nathaniel Parker), the owner of the house, who explains that he would like to sell the mansion. A flash-flood forces the Evers' to have to spend the night in the mansion. As the family begins to explore the house, they soon learn that the house is not only haunted, but cursed, and that Gracey feels that Sara (who resembles his long-lost love) can break that curse. Now, Jim must become the ultimate husband and save his family.

After the success of Pirates of the Caribbean, I'm sure that Disney felt they'd have another smash with this ride-themed film. Think again. "The Haunted Mansion" is one of the best rides at Disney World (yes, I eventually got to go), and it does a fantastic job of combining scares with family fun. The ride combines ghosts and floating props to create an eerie atmosphere. The movie takes these elements, cranks them up 100-times and yields a true mess. The movie attempts to walk the fine-line between mild scare-fest and comedy, and fails miserably at both. With Pirates of the Caribbean, the filmmakers took the themes from the ride and fleshed them out to a very convoluted, but intriguing story. With The Haunted Mansion, screenwriter David Berenbaum takes the setting of the ride and lays an incredibly clichéd plot over that. How many times have we seen the “She looks just like the dead woman from the past in the painting” plot? To make matters worse, this plot is essentially the movie’s whole story. Sara looks like Gracey’s long-lost love and he hopes to claim her. That’s it. The manic yet creepy nature of the film comes off a poor-man’s version of Beetlejuice. The movie also falls flat in terms of scares. The sets are incredible and the special effects are good, but the “shocks” are mostly far too mild to be interesting, save for one scene, where one of the kids is placed in danger while Jim runs the other way. That scene was disturbing, but no as it intended to be. Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) gives the film a nice look, but he seems to have no control of the story.

However, the true downfall of The Haunted Mansion comes with Eddie Murphy. If the movie had been played even slightly straight, then it could have possibly been enjoyable, but Murphy’s constant mugging would make Bill Cosby blush. Oftentimes, Murphy seems to be in a different movie as he’s yelling and making bug-eyes, when those around him are either scared or scary. Murphy’s character doesn’t serve as a link to the audience, as we can’t relate to his cocky slapstick performance. His over-the-top shtick works in the film’s opening, but once the “scares” start, he only takes this persona up a notch, and becomes incredibly annoying. This is truly sad, as the rest of the cast is pretty good, most notably Nathaniel Parker, who sounds just like James Mason, and Terence Stamp, who is notably menacing. The Haunted Mansion is loud, obnoxious and grating, offering no laughs and no scares. This is a shiny example of how Hollywood can take a bad idea and make it into an even worse movie.

The Haunted Mansion lurches onto DVD courtesy of Disney DVD. The film is being offered on DVD in two versions, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. As often is the case, this crappy movie is offered on a stunning DVD. The visual transfer looks fantastic, as the image is very sharp and clear, showing basically no grain and no overt defects from the source print. The transfer is very well-balanced , as the colors are fantastic and the black-tones are very rich and realistic. The scenes in the mansion are often dark, but the action is always visible. The transfer has a great depth of field and shows only scant traces of artifacting. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track on the DVD is equally impressive. The dialogue is clear and audible and the dynamic range is always well-balanced. The surround sound effects are plentiful and the bass response is amazing. The DVD is very technically sound.

This DVD is packed with extra features. First off, there are two audio commentaries. The first features producer Don Hahn, visual effects supervisor Jay Redd, and screenwriter David Berenbaum. The second has director Rob Minkoff and costume designer Mona May. If you combine these two commentaries, then the result will be one good one. Not that either commentary is necessarily bad, they are both pretty dry though and are often interchangeable in their information. We learn about the sets, locations, and actors, as well as the production, but the talks are never very exciting or lively. “The Haunted Mansion -- Secrets Revealed” is a 13-minute featurette which looks at several aspects of the film. Special effects makeup master Rick Baker describes the process of making some skeleton creatures and we get to see how the costumes were put together. Next, the visual effects department shows us how different layers were composited together to create the crystal ball effects. And then we are offered a look at the sets and production design. “Anatomy of a Scene: Ghosts in the Graveyard” is an 11-minute segment made up almost entirely of behind-the-scenes footage, as the filmmakers mount the ambitious tracking shot through the cemetery, which was actually made up of many different components. “Disney’s DVD Virtual Ride: The Haunted Mansion“ is essentially an interactive tour of the sets, and is hosted by two characters from the film, Emma (Dina Waters) and Ezra (Wallace Shawn). The interesting thing about this segment is that it’s 16 x 9. There is one deleted scene offered here, which would have explained the mansion’s curse earlier in the film. The 5-minute long outtake reel provides a few laughs. Finally, we have a music video where Raven covers Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition”...And the DVD reaches a new low.

2 out of 10 Jackasses

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